The film opens on a psychiatrist’s office as we watch the apparently autistic and hard-of-hearing Nick (Benny Safdie) unwillingly responding to a series of psychological quizzes. The session is abruptly brought to an end by the interruption of Connie (Robert Pattinson), Nick’s older brother. In just a couple of minutes, we learn about the boys’ tormented past with their grandma (parents are never mentioned) and that Connie has always got Nick’s back. Whether that’s a good thing is called into question in the next scene, which sees the boys robbing a bank. And all of this before we’ve finished watching the opening credits.
With those opening credits, the grainy texture of the film (courtesy of cinematographer Sean Price Williams) and Oneohtrix Point Never’s sensational score, there is a high-octane, old-school feel to this film, reminiscent of gritty heist movies from the 1970s. But we soon realise that we are not in The French Connection, but Palookaville – or at least somewhere in between – for Connie is not such a brilliant crook, but often a rather hapless one, with resultant chaos ensuing. There are some nice comedic moments both during and after the heist. But unlike the characters in Palookaville, this robber may be hapless, but he’s certainly not harmless and there is a constant threat of the chaos spiralling into violence. This is nicely juxtaposed with some much-needed comedy, particularly when Connie enters a home looking for a bolthole. And as the young girl who houses him and helps him, Taliah Webster is a treat. She’s all pink satin and fluff with a ribbon in her hair, but her incongruously childish dress disguises a much less innocent girl.
The film is set in the Safdies’ native Queens, the melting pot of New York City. Connie’s grandma is Greek and other characters struggle with their broken English. That older generation may have arrived seeking a better life in NYC, but their progeny seems mired in the city’s struggling, criminalised underbelly. The city’s notorious Rikers Island prison plays a role: Bill de Blasio recently stated his intention to close the jail and its reputation for brutality and inmate death makes it a hellish prospect for the socially inept Nick. The film follows Connie on his quest first to bail Nick out of prison and then to jump him from the hospital.
That quest involves a number of characters, none of whom are much good to Connie. There’s his bonkers girlfriend Corey (Jennifer Jason Leigh, on usual reliable form) who still lives with her mum and who has some serious mental health issues. It’s a shame we had so little of Corey, for her character has little time to stretch and for us to understand the couple’s relationship. Then we have the hilarious apparition of Ray (Buddy Duress, who also appeared in the Safdies’ Heaven Knows What). He’s just out of prison himself and is already in big trouble with his probation officer and the cops. When Connie needs to drum up some cash, Ray could be a way of finding some.
What makes Connie so fascinating is his moral ambiguity. He sets himself up as his brother’s protector, trying to keep him away from an institutionalised world of doctors, but his actions put Nick in other far more dangerous institutions. And how bad is grandma, really? Connie makes her out to be the enemy, but she seems to have Nick’s wellbeing at heart. So is Connie really the enemy here? When he disparages Ray for being a ‘fuck-up’ Ray rightly admonishes him, for he is no better than the next man and his moral code seems to extend little further than his brother. This is one of the problems with the tale, for although we want to like Connie and for him to ‘rescue’ his brother he is not actually that likable and nor are many of the other characters we meet. The film also loses some of the exhilarating and funny pace with which it opened.
As Connie, Robert Pattinson is tremendous. He completely dominates the film and is in virtually every scene. As all his schemes unravel, his desperation and desire to escape is palpable. Connie quickly adapts to new situations and assumes different identities: polite young man, charmer, bank robber, security guard, tough guy. Pattinson laps up the challenge and gives the performance of his career. He could be up for a best actor prize here in Cannes for his part in this grungy, funny thriller.